When we think of teachable stories, we often reach deep into the rucksack of the literary past, pulling out classroom-tested stories that have worked their way into the canon. While there is obviously a ton to learn from these pieces, contemporary short story writers are also completing strong work built upon teachable literary foundations, while also finding fascinating ways to advance the form. In this space, we’ll highlight some of these more modern stories and explore a bit of what they have to teach us as we continue to do our part to push literature forward.
In “Violations” by Catherine Lacey (published in Harpers), a man is consumed by the idea that his writer ex-wife may write about him. The idea is equal parts appalling and thrilling to him, though she has assured him many times that she does not write about her life nor the people or things in it. This is either blatantly false or willfully misleading, but is the theoretical underpinning with which she paints him as patently ridiculous for thinking he might ever find himself in her work; this absolute certainty of hers that she would never do such a thing (while also admitting all writing does this to a certain extent; and while having been accused in the past by others of having done exactly this) also leads to some of his own internal struggle as he tries to determine whether he is more terrified of finding himself on the page or of never existing in her pages at all.
Once he opens a magazine in which a story of hers is published, the complications complicate themselves quickly: He is certain that he recognizes their relationship inside the story, but the pieces that he sees are emotional beats rather than actual details. Even the physical details he can point to as being recognizably himself or his wife are twisted slightly, repurposed in the text. Is that writing about him, or is that using what the writer knows as a template for larger exploration, or is that simply the natural similarities of life expressing themselves? Well, yes.
Plot as Style
It’s a rare story that builds its plot through style, but that’s exactly what makes this story so interesting. The ostensible question at the heart of this piece circles around whether or not the man is right to be concerned (and whether he has the right to be concerned—in other words, does he control his narrative when his narrative is being told by someone else?), as he spends much of his time in the story trying to decide whether he has or has not been written about. Of course, there are two literary techniques that twist that mystery of his permanence-in-fiction: first, the man is not a traditional protagonist for whom we as readers are supposed to root, meaning that we read his concern but do not empathize with it—rather, all this time and energy he spends in determining his existence or non-existence in his ex-wife’s fiction is played to make the reader view him as ridiculous, pathetic, self-centered, uncultured, and even misogynistic; and second, the style in which this piece is written gives us a fairly major clue to the mystery of whether he is or isn’t being written about. It’s that second point that interests me, as a writer looking to learn from this story.
Has he been written about? Of course he has, quite clearly, because we are reading about him. Moreover, the author who has written about him, in this story that we’re reading in our digital hands, uses the exact style described to be the hallmark of the author to whom he speaks. As such, in the narrative framework of this piece, the author of this story we’re reading is really writing about his concern with being written about while the author inside the story is telling him that she will never write about him. But, at least if style is to be believed, the author inside the story is also the narrator of the story, writing about him imagining himself as a main focus point of her story—and to take that one meta-level further, is also seemingly the actual author of the story. And again, we build this argument exclusively and entirely through the linguistic style at play. Whoa.
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There’s also so much I love about this piece on a conceptual level. I love the way that this story plays with the questions around power, and I love the way that it both subtly and not-so-subtly digs into the challenges and hardships of using reality as foundation for art; yes, it’s something we do as artists, and yes there’s a long tradition of it, and yes it’s almost certainly legal, but also it hurts the real people being used. It shouldn’t be difficult to acknowledge that added dimension, but so often in modern storytelling (and most other modern arguments, I might posit) we find ourselves defending the ability to do something so vociferously that we refuse to acknowledge the drawbacks to that ability. Please note: nowhere in that am I saying we don’t have that right, nor that ability, nor am I saying we shouldn’t write those stories. But is it that hard to admit that it hurts to be made into someone else’s art at the expense of one’s own privacy? Even for a dude so certain that he must be the center of his ex-wife’s story, that can be true.
This ability to show multiple angles of a situation has long been one of the things I admire most about Lacey’s writing. In the hands of a lesser writer, the narrator of this story is a pathetic buffoon for not bowing to the necessities of art and nothing more. In the hands of Lacey, he is that-and. We can see him in all his self-serving misery, can recognize that his version of events is skewed badly, can refuse to give him the pity for which he is begging, and yet are still able to see the places where the writer’s argument falls somewhat flat as well.
How does the story pull all this off? On a technical level, there are a few things I want to point out.
First, the long and winding sentences (seriously, look at that opening paragraph!). So much of the complication that Lacey is able to add into the story comes from the willful divergences that she explores clause by clause. Unmoored from the forced motion of short, Hemingway-esque sentences—since he’s name-dropped in the story, with “those quick little school-of-fish sentences”—this piece can dive deeply into all angles of every situation, staying in a moment long enough to add nuance to every statement. These aren’t long sentences for the sake of length, chaining together a bunch of “ands” to move us through moments, and these aren’t sentences forced overlong to encompass unnecessary description or padded adverbs. Rather, these are sentences deeply focused on their subject, each clause turning and tuning our understanding of the moment.
That awareness of sentences leads nicely into a quick discussion of the use of point of view in this piece. What could be a fairly straightforward third person past tense POV reveals itself quickly to be anything but. This plays in with what I was discussing before—the inherent uncertainty as to what exactly is happening (is he being written about? Is he an idiot for thinking so? Is he an idiot for thinking he wouldn’t be? Does it matter what he thinks at all?) comes from the play being utilized in point of view: we’re used to third-past being a storytelling POV, an impartial narrator if there’s even a narrator at all, but in this case our third-person narrator is using that trust that comes from a third-person POV to impart their own very clear opinions of this character. That’s what third-past always does, of course, but usually we as writers hand-wave over that part. Here, because of the narrator’s written style (which is clearly reminiscent of the author-character), we’re much more aware of the narrator telling us the story and therefore the author outside the story, which means that all of these things that he’s saying and thinking are instead assumptions and opinions of this narrator about what he might be thinking. That’s especially interesting since this story is almost entirely made up of things that an impartial observer cannot know—this story is nearly entirely his potential thoughts.
This is a perfect story to use the technique of the opinionated narrator, because while we’re following this guy very closely, as I’ve already said he’s not a “protagonist” in the classic sense of the word. His decisions aren’t exactly driving the story, we’re not exactly rooting for him since what we see of him gives us little to admire or appreciate, and he doesn’t ultimately come to anything like an answer to any of his principal challenges in the story. A lot of the work being done to make sure that we don’t treat him as protagonist, that we’re not ever entirely on his side, comes from the way this narrator speaks—though it purports as if it is reporting his thoughts and actions, we can read fairly clearly that the narrator has their own opinions of the man being observed. This distance, and the clear-if-soft negative sheen the narrator puts upon him with their observations, is a great move for stories such as these where the main character (who a reader might normally be tempted to try to identify with) holds a nontraditional role in the story, and one that I make note to burnish in my writer’s toolbox every time I observe this story.
The other big technique I want to point out here is how little we’re in scene. I’ve said this is a story of style, and perhaps the most clear example of that comes from how little time we spend in the moments that are often the bedrock of fiction. The first moment of actual scene is in the middle of the story’s second section (“He put the magazine down,” a moment we enter into through previous summary of how he read her magazines generally, right up until this sentence where it becomes an action), and much of the in-moment scenework that happens is actually us reading the writer’s story along with him. We’re not fully in scene, unless a summarization of a story as the reader is reading it counts (maybe it does?), until the final paragraph of the story. Partially this is a product of style, partially of the interests of the piece, but it’s something I note every time I read this story, as I remind myself that every aspect of storytelling exists for a reason.
Perhaps a minor final note, but in a story that is actively playing off our questions around what’s happening (is he being written about or not?) and who characters are (is the character-author also the narrator, and if so are we supposed to go further and read the author-as-narrator-as-actual-author?), Lacey has chosen to leave these characters unnamed. It might seem such a tiny choice, one that goes along with choosing not to dive into backstory, but it forces that sheen of unknowing onto the piece in every moment, so that we are diving into deep exploration of character without any of the basics of character on which we so often rely.
I’ve just finished teaching a class on metafiction, so I’m primed to look for these story-bending techniques everywhere at the moment—author-as-character; that’s so meta! That sort of thing—but what makes this story so incredibly effective is the fact that you can read through it without wandering through the argument around style and still build a powerful piece. The character sketch that exists here is just as effective, the arguments around truth and story and who gets to tell it, the questions about the main character’s existence in the fiction he’s reading—another place where we circle closely to meta—land just as strongly. I love fiction that does that, that can be experienced or dissected, and this is a perfect example of that.
I want to leave you with the final image of the piece. Our main character has finished reading the story and is ready to call his ex-wife, though he’s not sure what he’s going to say, nor even really what he’s read. While he struggles with the awareness that he has no idea what he wants to express, “he realized the tone had already toned and whether he said anything or not, he was already leaving a message.” Even here at the conclusion, he has no control over himself or how he comes across. On whichever level, the narrator or the telephone, his inability to interpret the story or his certainty that he must exist somewhere inside its pages, the story is out of his hands.
by Brandon Williams